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Parcel 5 plan proceeds; so will the criticism


All other things being equal, plans for a big new theater and a new apartment building on a prominent empty downtown lot probably get a lot of support in Rochester.

But the prominent empty lot is Parcel 5 of the former Midtown Plaza site. The proposed theater will be owned by, and used primarily by, the Rochester Broadway League, for performances by touring Broadway shows and other traveling events.

And from the moment city officials announced that they had chosen RBTL's theater – and a Morgan Management apartment tower – for Parcel 5, the proposal has been the focus of a huge controversy. That controversy has solid roots, and I hope Mayor Lovely Warren and City Council – which has to approve the sale of the Parcel 5 land to developers – will be very, very careful as they enter this final phase.
I agree with Warren that the theater will probably contribute to what is already a good upward trend downtown. It will draw people downtown who don't go there now. And some of them will indeed eat there as well. The theater will add to the already healthy number of attractions that make downtown interesting.
And I cringe when I hear people sniff that many of the theater-goers will be from the suburbs, as if city residents alone can support key city institutions like Geva, the Rochester Philharmonic, the Little….

The next step for Parcel 5: Warren is asking City Council to approve hiring a Cleveland-based consultant, DLR Group, to look into things like job growth and "economic and social vitality" to make sure that the theater "maximizes its benefit to all of Rochester's residents and organizations."
An earlier study by DLR and its predecessor, Westlake Reed Leskosky, says the theater would create jobs and boost economic development downtown. In this one, DLR is asked to answer the following "supplemental questions":

  1. "Is it possible to forecast direct positive or negative financial impact on other arts organizations?"
  2. "How can the entertainment center support the diverse arts organizations that exist in all areas of Rochester?"
  3. "What strategies have other entertainment centers used to minimize dark time and engage the surrounding community during the day and on nights that are not programmed?"
  4. "What strategies or revenues have comparable cities used to build an arts endowment that helps all arts organizations? (e.g. car rental tax, etc.)"

Council is expected to vote on the new DLR study at its March 20 meeting. If it approves the study, DLR will have until July 31 to do its work. And Warren won't go back to City Council to ask for approval of a land sale until she gets the report.

Meantime, RBTL will keep looking for money, presumably. And critics of the Parcel 5 plan will keep speaking out. Warren and Council need to listen to them.

A huge, dark cloud has been hanging over this proposal since the beginning, and it's foolish – and, frankly, insulting – to assume either that it's not important or that it'll disappear once the project is built.

Even if you set aside the argument that Parcel 5 should be maintained as open space, the RBTL proposal is suffering from a ton of baggage.

 Its very announcement was a shock. The well-founded speculation was that Warren had chosen developer Andy Gallina's proposal for a mixed-use, commercial-residential condominium tower. The reason for the change of heart, apparently, was that as the Warren administration prepared to announce the Gallina choice, it developed concerns about whether Gallina's financing was secured. RBTL, which had a $25 million pledge from Paychex founder Tom Golisano for the theater, put in a late addition to its Parcel 5 proposal: the Morgan apartment building. That added a taxable piece to what had been a tax-exempt development.

But Golisano's $25 million will cover only part of the theater's estimated $85 million construction cost. RBTL and the city hope the state will kick in another $20 million, but that hasn't come yet. In the past, Joe Morelle, the New York Assembly's majority leader, has resisted funding a RBTL theater, and his relationship with Warren hasn't always been great.

In addition, RBTL has been looking for money for a new theater for decades. Previously, its leaders have said that a stumbling block has been the lack of a formal commitment of a site. It's had that site for a year now, and there's been no announcement about funds beyond Golisano's $25 million.

RBTL may very well come up with the rest of the money. But its history seems to be having a huge influence on public perception about the Parcel 5 project. If at the end, it comes up short and Warren decides to try to make up the rest, my hunch is that it'll do major damage to her reputation.

RBTL has some vocal critics in a very important part of the community: arts leaders. Rightly or wrongly, they insist that a new RBTL theater will hurt other arts institutions – that RBTL's productions, in a big, glitzy new theater will be direct competition for productions staged by the Eastman School, Geva, and others.

You can argue that the opposite is true: that RBTL can generate more interest in live theater and other live performances. That the local arts groups could capitalize on the presence of high-profile shows like "Hamilton" and "Book of Mormon" and get those audiences to start attending their own events.

But you can also argue that local audiences don't have unlimited funds. Local arts groups already struggle. State support for the arts has been reduced dramatically. The current federal government is downright hostile to the arts. And the loss of Rochester's major industrial base has also hit the arts.

In addition, as one of our Feedback contributors notes this week, many smaller arts groups and individual artists feel neglected. Rochester has no arts commission or other City Hall-sanctioned organization that acts as a public arm helping look out for the interests of the arts and encouraging and overseeing public art.

And while City Council could pass legislation requiring that a percentage of new development funding be set aside for the arts, efforts to bring that about have gone nowhere.

Broadening the scope of the city's "City of the Arts" effort won't end all of the criticism, but it could help. And besides, it's the right thing to do.

What will happen to the Auditorium Theatre? The big, multi-day Broadway shows that RBTL brings there would move to the new theater at Parcel 5. RBTL insists that it will continue to stage other events at the Aud, but what will be the impact on RAPA and other organizations that bring in similar events? How many events are economically feasible in Rochester? What will happen to if RBTL can't bring in enough events to keep operating the Aud?

You could argue that this is simply marketplace competition, that it's none of City Hall's business. But the arts are a public concern and a public benefit. And while RBTL does indeed hire local people to assist in the productions it brings in, the shows themselves are produced by for-profit, out-of-town entities, and the performers don't live here.

Concern about competition from a new RBTL theater, then, isn't at all unreasonable.

Will the Morgan apartment complex need a public subsidy? Many of the new developments taking place downtown are getting some kind of tax exemption. For years, that seemed to be essential if we were to attract development and make construction affordable for developers. But interest in downtown has been growing. City officials need to determine now, before they commit further to the Parcel 5, whether the public needs to continue to offer subsidies to for-profit residential developers.

They should also develop a vision for increasing the amount of affordable housing downtown – and some specific requirements for each new development. Many of the apartments being built now are out of range for a large number of Rochesterians – not only those on public assistance, but many employed people and retirees.

The RBTL-Morgan proposal may very well be the best plan imaginable for Parcel 5. But the concerns about it are legitimate, and they're important.

For some critics, no amount of change will make the Parcel 5 theater plan acceptable. At some point, Warren and City Council may feel that they have move forward anyway. But there's plenty they can do to improve this plan and to document – as best they can – that it really is in the best interest of the community. They can use this plan as the beginning of an expanded effort to boost all of the arts and open downtown housing and entertainment opportunities to more people.

The July 31 deadline for the consultant's report gives them plenty of time to make those changes.

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